I started writing about movies formally in January 2010 with The Book of Eli, which released the second weekend of that year more than $20 million behind Avatar, which was in its fifth weekend. I’ve heard so much about Avatar – well, I’ve heard the same two things about Avatar, that it’s a completely unforgettable visual experience and that it’s basically a dumber, bluer version of Dances with Wolves, so often – that my interest in it has already completely vanished. I was much more cynical back then and wasn’t interested in the historical significance of what was happening, so I never made time for it.
Over the coming years, as the Disney monopoly takes an increasing stranglehold on the box office, something strange happens – Avatar, this global phenomenon that pulled in $2.7 billion worldwide, a film which drove every theater and most major blockbusters to retrofit overnight to accommodate it, completely vanishes from the culture. The biggest bits of Avatar news over the years are announcements of four sequels and, much later, an amusement park, both of which are met with quiet jeers.
Ten years later as the world is shaken by a horrible pandemic, high-level movies completely stop releasing and theaters shut down. Theater chains and the film distribution industry play out a several-month game of chicken over when new material will start releasing, causing theaters to try running classics, and the thought occurs to me that Avatar needs to be one of them. So much of making money with movies now is premium large-format screens, things like IMAX or Cinemark XD or AMC’s Dolby theaters, which were spun off from Avatar’s revelatory 3D run, but are still in short supply. Most theaters only have one or two PLF screens, and the height of the COVID-19 crisis might be the only time in history they aren’t reserved for the most recent blockbuster. Avatar in 3D is a massive part of cinematic history that’s completely inaccessible now if theaters don’t make room for it.
It’s two years after this realization, the first sequel is finally going to come out in December, and in an historically soft September release slate, Avatar finally makes its way back into PLF theaters in full 3D glory, and as I sit my popcorn bucket down in front of the biggest screen in DFW and I flip those cheap plastic glasses down over my eyes, I can still sense my own painful disinterest in actually watching this movie.
Three hours later
Well, they told me it was a dumber, bluer version of Dances with Wolves, but what they couldn’t tell me back in 2009 was that Avatar was an especially big and especially dumb MCU movie about a decade ahead of its time.
Avatar is like a theoretical novelty, something so pure in its contradictions that it’s hard to believe it actually exists. It is both completely forgettable, and has been completely forgotten by the culture at large, and incredibly influential, keenly ahead of its time in story structure and middle-of-the-road appeal. Its signature, bringing back the 3D fad that cycles in and out of theaters every 20 years or so, has all at once vanished from sight and become so pervasive and abundant that you can look right at it without realizing.
Avatar is bad. I mean, it is really, really bad.
The script is amteurish. It’s juvenile, like it was written by a seventh grader who thinks he’s invented systemic critique as a genre.
The movie is ugly as sin. It is hard to look at, and not just because of the added difficulty of a 3D screening. It looks more than anything else like screensaver art, that horrible unnatural lighting that somehow makes the blue of the sky and the green of the trees so unsightly.
I hate 3D. It makes my head hurt. I hate the weight and texture of those cheapshit glasses that feel like solid tar on my face.
I hate fighting for premium seats. I normally don’t much care where I’m seated in a theater as long as I’m in the room and nobody’s noshing right behind me, but 3D takes that care-free feeling away because you really need to be in the middle for it. Assigned seating has made the wild and excited out-the-door lines that characterized Avatar’s first release relics of the past that can’t be brought back, and I found myself hurriedly selecting center seats for a Sunday matinee that was already almost sold out the Monday before. I always point to the Alamo Drafthouse as the culprit there, but 3D and the still-rare movies like Avatar that actually emphasize 3D to the point that I feel like I shouldn’t judge them by a standard screening makes me actually engage with the problem.
At the same time, it’s incredibly easy to see how the film became such a phenomenon, and it isn’t because of the 3D. Everything about Avatar is surgically middle-of-the-road, designed to affirm as many people as possible. The glorification of the individual soldier as the ultimate problem-solver inside the bureaucracy of the army, a mentality espoused by both heroes and villains alike, is an easy way to hold in that sweet-spot of both pro-military and anti-the type of atrocities carried out by militaries. The film is also firmly environmentalist, allowing it to be staunchly political and relatively inoffensive for just about anyone who watches it.
It feels like baby’s first systemic critique, it really does. There’s this screaming void in the shape of a bridge between the ideas presented in the film and how they play out in the real world. It’s certainly not the first anti-imperial blockbuster to leave American viewers saying, “Empire? What Empire?” The keen, careful appeal to middle America is easily observable in the blockbusters that have come since-
More than its politics, Avatar appeals incisively to escapism and the desire to bathe yourself in a fantasy world. December 2009 was right around the peak of “World of Warcraft’s” popularity, and I’m distinctly reminded of running around Azeroth watching the film. The world of Pandora is a similar facsimile of nature, every inch of the frame painstakingly designed to look like a natural formation, but with something narrowly relevant to the plot around every corner.
I can easily see my teenage self fantasizing about the exaggerated world of the film, but on the other side of a bachelor’s in journalism, at a time in my life where fact has become so much more interesting to me than fiction, it seems almost like a vague satire of real life designed for people who haven’t experienced enough of it. The Na’vi have a heightened sexuality granted by their ability to join exposed ends of their nervous system – but that’s almost exactly what human sex organs are, bundles of exposed nerves designed to plug into each other. The central discovery in the film, that all of Pandora’s biosphere is connected by a single nervous system, is just a less interesting version of what mushrooms actually are.
So much of Avatar has been incorporated into standard operating procedure for blockbusters, especially superhero movies, that it’s hard to look back on in 2022 with the idea that it was a groundbreaking thing – and looking back, most of the real innovations were behind-the-scenes.
Every film is, fundamentally, a quilt. In its raw form, a digital film is an assembly of thousands of individual video and sound clips, all of which came from different places and different people, assembled into a single coherent narrative. When the first generation of Soviet directors were establishing the first film schools, a lot of their theories, theories I personally ascribe to, held that it is this assembly, the quality of it and thought behind it, not the shots and soundbites themselves, that makes film into an art form.
The only difference with Avatar is scale. Welding animation and live-action photography to a degree that had never been done before, Avatar’s quilt went down to individual shots, with several layers of animation and real photography sewn on top of each other in every frame. Cameron and his production team developed a custom workflow to handle all the different patches of this film, which was so granular they were stitching different faces onto actor’s bodies so they could re-record their lines without setting up the entire shot again. The problem with these sorts of innovations are that they never actually end up in front of the audience. However smartly Cameron and company worked to make the production and assembly easier on themselves and make cleaner decisions about which takes to use, they eventually do make a decision, and their workflow doesn’t matter anymore. All that matters now is the one take that makes its way onscreen.
Another wave of Avatar’s technological innovations came behind the projection room window. As the phenomenon grew, theaters around the world had to convert overnight in order to project it properly and catch the windfall.
3D feels new every time it comes around, but really, the fad comes in waves every 20 or so years that goes back almost to the very beginning of cinema, with German filmmakers experimenting with a multiple-projector system in the years leading up to World War I. It pops up throughout history going by several names and technologies every now and again, with a recognized “golden era” of 3D filmmaking landing from 1952-54.
That’s just about how long 3D lasted in the wake of Avatar as well, with studios realizing as soon as 2012 that it’s extremely unpopular for a variety of reasons, including premium ticket costs and the fact that most of the films marketed as “3D” following Avatar weren’t actually 3D. Avatar and other genuine 3D films are shot with two cameras mounted side-by-side taking slightly different images to create depth perception the way our eyes do and displayed with two projectors doing the same thing, but in the scramble to capitalize on the fad, many movies were shot conventionally and converted to 3D in post-production. I still remember the outrage when people learned that Clash of the Titans (2010), another of the first movies I wrote about, had been re-rendered into 3D at the tail end of its production process. People more gullible than me dropped $20 tickets thinking the next Avatar was here only to learn that about 10% of the movie was in 3D, and not even the Kraken parts.
While 3D didn’t last and has never lasted, Avatar’s outrageous success proved that people would pay premium prices for a premium viewing experience, just not 3D specifically. Rather than hold the bag for all the renovations Avatar necessitated, theaters developed branded large-format screens permanently reserved for the hottest new blockbuster. Even as 3D tanked, these premium large-format, or PLF, screens remained an important part of how movie theaters make money into the COVID-19 crisis.
What’s so frustrating about 3D is that depth of field within a photograph is a basic consideration of any image, and creating a two-tiered effect that seems to pop out is a really basic trick you can do with any camera. The camera’s ability to focus on everything in front of it is dictated by how wide its aperture opens for a given shot – the more narrow the aperture, the better the camera’s ability to get everything in the frame in focus. If you set the aperture to open more widely, your point of focus will still be sharp, but the rest of the image will start to blur, so your subject will seem to pop out from the background even in a still image.
One reason to open the aperture more widely is to let more light into the sensor, but light isn’t a problem for Hollywood productions where there’s an entire subsection of the crew tasked with flooding the set with light, so most movies are shot through teeny tiny little apertures to get everything crisp. The other reason to open the aperture is for artistic effect, because it’s a great effect! We like good, creative camerawork in movies, and blur effects are part of that.
This is baseline functionality for any real camera and a baseline tool for any photographer who knows what they’re doing – start looking for it in wedding photos, it’s those guys’ bread and butter. It’s a great effect, and it’s not shiny, you can’t market it as “third-dimensional,” but from a cinematography perspective, it’s the same damn thing.
As I write this, it’s been a couple of weeks since the Lensa fad, when millions of social media users sent a handful of selfies to the FBI in exchange for portraits designed by an “artificially intelligent” algorithm, and it’s strange to look at Avatar’s arranged fauna thinking about the ways image creation has evolved. There was a time when the only way to capture an image was to paint it. The invention of photography allowed us to simply imprint light onto a film, snapping in an instant details that once had to be painstakingly recreated, all the little nuances of the real world that a painter had to individually discover and account for now available at a glance as they whip past at 24 frames per second.
Many of the PLF screens inspired by Avatar’s historic run devote a few minutes of each show to boasting about the millions of colors they can artificially recreate in projection, the granularity with which they can arrange CMYK pixels. I think about what I’m actually looking at, not light passing through film, but an assembly of pixels that can come infinitely close to, but never quite recreate, real color.
No matter how powerful digital cameras and projectors become, the gradient of the green leaves and blue hides of Pandora will always be a combination of these four pixels. They can never truly be as rich as real color captured on a film reel.